No Dale Earnhardt Jr. No Jimmie Johnson. Heck, not even polarizing drivers such as Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart are in the mix.
There’s no question the new Chase format is lacking star power. Nothing against guys such as Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, but they just don’t move the needle like some.
But for what the Chase lacks in that department, it makes up for in the drama department. This format is aimed at producing “Game 7 moments” and that’s exactly what it’s done.
And, as Sunday taught us, the non-Chase drivers can certainly play the spoiler role in the final weeks.
Nobody, from Chase drivers to fans, objected to having Earnhardt take the checkered flag for the first time at Martinsville Speedway.
The new format, after all, is working out just fine. Sure, it helped that the most popular driver on the circuit was the first to throw a wrench into the Chase, but drivers would have been OK if a less popular non-Chase driver had won, too.
“Without a doubt,” said Newman, who finished third. “Everybody has an opportunity to win. If David Ragan would have had a great restart and won the race, it would have been no different in my mind, being a less popular non-Chase driver. That’s racing.”
Added Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage: “This is the drama you look for in tournaments and playoffs and things like that. Where did that guy come from? Where did that team come from? This is good stuff going on.”
Some Chase contenders even appreciated Earnhardt holding off his teammate and Chaser Jeff Gordon for the win.
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By winning, Earnhardt took away a guaranteed berth into the championship round from one of the final eight, meaning at least two of four spots in the championship race will be decided by points.
As Chaser Joey Logano said, “It’s good the 88 won and not the 24. That’s a good thing.”
Gordon knows he missed an opportunity to secure a spot in the next round and is more than aware that he has work to do. He’s not making the same mistake as Kyle Busch did last round and taking his spot for granted.
Busch had a third-place run in the first race of the previous round and felt he “won” a spot in the next round with that performance, only to see it slip away two weeks later at Talladega.
“Anything can happen,” Gordon said. “That’s why you want to win so badly. I like our chances at the next two tracks, but we’ve got to go race. We got to race hard. We got to be smart and we got to go for it hard.
“That’s the toughest thing about this thing, you got to go for it. You got to put everything out on the edge. If you go too far over the edge, you might be out. There’s a very fine line there.”
Talk about intensity and pressure heating up with only two races left in the Eliminator Round. Next stop: Texas.
Being the middle race has proven to be a good draw so far under this format and TMS seems poised to once again stir up emotions.
In the Challenger Round, New Hampshire served as the second race and it was wild, with 15 caution flags and several contenders struggling.
Hamlin, Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth all finished outside the top 20, and only Hamlin, Gordon and Kenseth managed to overcome it.
There was even more drama in the second stop of the Contender Round at Charlotte. That’s the race where Brad Keselowski drew more ire from his fellow drivers for his reckless nature on the track, leading to post-race confrontations with Hamlin and Kenseth.
NASCAR officials didn’t let it escalate too far and Keselowski offered no apologies for his driving style, saying he’s focused on winning, not making friends.
So could Texas ask for anything better than being in the middle of this round with even higher stakes?
“Not at all,” Gossage said. “If this trend holds true, then this goes up to yet another level here in Texas.”